History of Northern Ireland

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The area now known as Northern Ireland has had a diverse history. From being the bedrock of Irish resistance in the era of the plantations of Queen Elizabeth and James I in other parts of Ireland, it became itself the location of the Plantation of Ulster of Scottish settlers, from the Flight of the Earls when the native Gaelic aristocracy left en masse. Today, Northern Ireland is a diverse patchwork of community rivalries, represented in Belfast by whole communities flying the tricolour of Ireland or the Union Flag, the symbol of the United Kingdom, while even the kerbstones in less affluent areas are painted green, white and orange or red, white and blue, depending on whether a community is nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist.

Northern Ireland along with Great Britain formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922, following the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 and the independence achieved for the twenty-six counties as the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland's capital city is Belfast.

Template:History of Ireland


Early 20th century

From the late 19th Century it was hoped by most Irish people that the British government would give some sort of self-rule to Ireland at some stage. The Irish Nationalist Party regularly held the balance of power in the British House of Commons in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a position from which it sought to gain Home Rule, and two bills granting home rule to Ireland were passed by the Commons in the 1886 and 1893 only to be rejected by the House of Lords. With the passing of the Parliament Act by the Liberal Party government in 1911, which reduced the powers of the Lords from striking down Parliamentary Bills to delaying their implementation for two years, it was apparent that home rule would probably come into force in the next five years. The Home Rule Party had been waiting for this for almost fifty years.

Irish Unionists had been agitating successfully against Home Rule since the 1880s, and on 28 September 1912, the leader of the northern unionists, James Craig, introduced the Ulster Covenant in Belfast, pledging to exclude Ulster from home rule, which was signed by 450,000 men, some in their own blood. While precipitating a split with the Unionist community in the South and West, which was particularly sizable in Dublin, it gave the northern Unionists a feasible goal to aim for.

By the early 20th Century Belfast had become the largest city in Ireland and its industrial economy - with heavy engineering and shipbuilding - was closely integrated with that of Britain. Belfast was a substantially Protestant town - Catholics were largely confined to the west of the city and a few enclaves in the north and, because of Conservative Party sympathy, their political voice was strong.

A third Home Rule Bill was introduced by the Liberal minority government in 1912. After heavy amendment by the House of Lords, the Commons agreed in 1914 to allow four counties of Ulster to vote themselves out of its provisions for six years. Throughout 1913 and 1914, paramilitary 'volunteer armies' were recruited and armed, firstly unionists, and in response, nationalists; then Gavrilo Princip fatefully shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Home rule was delayed for the duration of the First World War, and both main political factions agreed to encourage their volunteers to join the British army.

During the war tensions continued to mount in Ireland, particularly after the Easter Rising in 1916. When the volunteers returned from the front in 1918 and 1919, they came back as battle-hardened soldiers rather than rag-tag yeomanry. In the British general election of 1918, Sinn Féin won almost all the seats, while the Unionists still held a significant number of seats in the north-east, while the two nationalist parties agreed on a pact to maximise the nationalist vote.

Guerilla war raged across Ireland in the aftermath of the election, and although lower in intensity in the North, it was complicated by involving not only the Irish Republican Army and the British Army but various Unionist factions. There is some electoral evidence from the period (notably the local government elections of 1920) that the Irish Nationalist Party retained much more support in the North than in the rest of Ireland. For example, South Armagh and West Belfast produced very few votes for Sinn Fein in the 1918 election.

After the passage of the fourth and final Home Rule Bill in 1920, the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the six north-eastern counties of Ireland received self-government as Northern Ireland, although some Unionists such as Sir Edward Carson opposed partition bitterly, seeing it as a betrayal of unionists in the rest of Ireland. The early years of the new state were marked by bitter violence, particularly in Belfast, with the IRA determined to oppose the partition of Ireland, and the Unionist authorities creating paramilitary groups and draconian emergency powers to put down the IRA. Many died, mainly Catholics, in political violence, which gradually petered out after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 and through 1923.

The Irish civil war was fought over the Treaty, which accepted partition, though it was not the main issue as many believed that it was temporary. Michael Collins, the leader of the new Free State Army pursued a twin track strategy - encouraging both continued IRA military action and using diplomatic and political pressure.

The continuing violence created a climate of "pogrom" in the new Northern Ireland, and there was a temporary migration of some Catholics from the north to the south - further isolating those nationalists who remained in the north. Repressive and sectarian police recruitment- justified by the need to suppress the IRA - added to nationalists' alienation from the state.

Under successive Unionist Prime Ministers from Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) onwards, the Ulster establishment practiced what is generally considered a policy of wholesale discrimination against the nationalist/Catholic minority. Gerrymandered towns and city boundaries rigged local government elections to ensure Protestant control of local councils. Catholics were packed into Catholic-dominated wards rather than being allowed to move into Protestant wards, while predominantly Protestant wards were subdivided to create multiple Protestant-dominated wards. Voting arrangements which gave commercial companies votes and minimum income regulations also helped achieve similar ends. Disputes over local government gerrymandering were at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

As a result Northern Ireland's demography shifted further in favour of Protestants and their ascendancy seemed impregnible by the late 1950s.

In addition, there was widespread discrimination in employment, particularly at senior levels in the public sector and in some sectors of the economy such as shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Perhaps most fatally, the abolition of Proportional Representation in 1929 meant that the structure of party politics gave the Ulster Unionist Party a continual sizable majority in the Northern Ireland Parliament, leading to fifty years of one-party rule. While Nationalist parties continued to retain the same number of seats that they had under Proportional Representation, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and various smaller leftist Unionist groups were smothered.

Though disputed for decades, many leaders of unionism now admit that Northern Ireland government in the period 1922-1972 was hardly inclusive, although prominent DUP figures continue to deny it. One unionist leader, Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner, Ulster Unionist Leader and former First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, openly described Northern Ireland as having been a "cold place for Catholics."

Despite this, Northern Ireland stayed relatively peaceful for most of the following five decades, except for some brief flurries of IRA activity during the Second World War and the so-called 'Border Campaign' from 1956 to 1962, with little support among the wider Catholic community. However, Catholics were resentful towards the state, and nationalist politics was sullen and defeatist. Meanwhile, the period saw an almost complete synthesis between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Protestant Orange Order, with Catholic Unionists being excluded from any position of political or civil authority outside a handful of Nationalist-controlled councils.

Late 20th century

Main article The Troubles.

In the 1960s, moderate Unionist prime minister Terence O'Neill (later Lord O'Neill of the Maine) tried to reform the system, but encountered strong opposition from fundamentalist Protestant leaders like the Reverend Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from extreme Unionists for 'No surrender' led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures such as John Hume and Austin Currie. In its early days it had some moderate Protestant support and membership, and also a considerable dose of student radicalism after Northern Ireland was swept up in the world-wide student revolts of 1968. Clashes between marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary led to increased communal strife, with elements both among the police and student radicals actively seeking to up the temperature, culminating in a violent attack by a unionist mob on a small Marxist student march while the police looked on, at Burntollet, outside Derry on 4 January 1969. Wholescale violence erupted after an Apprentice Boys march was forced through the staunchly nationalist Bogside area of Derry on 12 August 1969 by the RUC. Rioting continued until the 14th of August, and in that time 1,091 canisters, each containing 12.5g of CS gas and 14 canisters containing 50g of CS gas, were released into the densely populated residential area by the RUC1. The following thirty years of civil strife became to be known as The Troubles.

The British army were sent to Northern Ireland by British Home Secretary James Callaghan to protect nationalists from attack two days later on 14 August 1969. Two weeks later, control of security in the six counties was passed from the Stormont government to General Ian Freeland. At first they received a warm welcome from Nationalists. However, tensions rose throughout the following years, with an important milestone in the worsening relationship being the Falls Road Curfew of 3 July 1970.

After the introduction of internment without trial for "suspected" IRA men on 9 August 1971, even the most moderate Nationalists reacted by completely withdrawing their consent from the operation of the state. The SDLP members of the Northern Ireland Parliament withdrew from that body on 15 August and a widespread campaign of civil disobedience began. Tensions were ratcheted to a higher level after the killing (in highly controversial circumstances) of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derry by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972, an event dubbed Bloody Sunday.

Throughout this period, the modern constellation of paramilitary organisations began to form. After Bloody Sunday, their full fury was unleashed. The appearance in 1969 of the Provisional IRA, a breakaway from the increasingly Marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by Loyalist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association and others brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. On 30 March of that year, the British government, unwilling to grant the Unionist Northern Ireland government more authoritarian special powers, and now convinced of its inability to restore order, prorogued the Northern Ireland Parliament and introduced direct rule from Britain.

However, the British government held talks with various parties, including the IRA, during 1972 and 1973. On 9 December 1973, after talks in Sunningdale, Berkshire, the Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP and Alliance Party of Northern Ireland reached the Sunningdale Agreement on a cross-community government for Northern Ireland, which took office on 1 January 1974. The IRA was unimpressed, increasing the tempo of their violence, while unionists were outraged at the participation of nationalists in the government of Northern Ireland and at the cross-border Council of Ireland. Although the pro-Sunningdale parties had a clear majority in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the failure of the pro-Agreement parties to co-ordinate their efforts in the British General Election of 29 February, combined with an IRA sponsored boycott by hard-line Republicans, allowed anti-Sunningdale Unionists to take 51.1% of the vote and 11 of Northern Ireland's 12 seats in the UK House of Commons.

Emboldened by this, a coalition of anti-Agreement Unionist politicians and Loyalist paramilitaries encouraged a general strike on 15 May. The strikers brought Northern Ireland to a standstill by shutting down power stations, and after Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send in troops to take over from the strikers, the power-sharing executive collapsed on 28 May.

Some British politicians, notably former British Labour minister Tony Benn, advocated British withdrawal from Ireland, but many opposed this policy, and called their prediction of the possible results of British withdrawal the Doomsday Scenario, anticipating widespread communal strife. The worst fear envisaged a civil war which would engulf not just Northern Ireland, but the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and Scotland, both of which had major links with either or both communities. Later, the feared possible impact of British Withdrawal was the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the chaos that ensued.

The level of violence declined from its early 1970s peak from 1972 onwards, stabilising at 50 to 100 deaths a year. The IRA framed 'spectaculars', particularly on mainland Britain and at British targets elsewhere in Europe, with a regular throb of attacks in Northern Ireland. Unionist paramilitaries, while claiming a few high profile Republican casualties, principally targeted uninvolved Catholics working in Protestant areas or attacked Catholic-frequented pubs with what were euphemistically known as 'spray jobs' with automatic gunfire.

Various fitful political talks took place from then until the early 1990s, backed by schemes such as Rolling Devolution, and 1975 saw a brief IRA ceasefire. The two events of real significance during this period, however, were the Hunger Strikes and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

During the Hunger Strike, the Republican movement gained its first taste of electoral politics with moderate electoral success on both sides of the border, including the election of Bobby Sands to the House of Commons, convincing Republicans to adopt the armalite and ballot box strategy and gradually take a more political approach.

By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim of British Withdrawal, and in particular the public relations disaster of Enniskillen (when there were 11 fatalities among families attending a Remembrance Day ceremony), along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement.

This change from paramilitary to political means was part of a broader Northern Ireland peace process, which followed the appearance of new leaders in London (John Major) and Dublin (Albert Reynolds).

Increased government focus on the problems of Northern Ireland led, in 1993, to the two prime ministers signing the Downing Street Declaration. At the same time Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, engaged in talks. A new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, initially perceived as a hardliner, brought his party into all-party negotiations that in 1998 produced the Belfast Agreement ("Good Friday Agreement"), signed by eight parties on 10 April 1998, although crucially not involving Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party or the UK Unionist Party. A majority of both communities in Northern Ireland approved this Agreement, as did the people of the Republic of Ireland, both by referendum on 22 May 1998. The Republic amended its constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, to replace a claim it made to the territory of Northern Ireland with an affirmation of the right of all the people of Ireland to be part of the Irish nation and a declaration of the aspirations towards a united Ireland of the Irish nation (see the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland).

Since the Good Friday Agreement

Under the Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement, voters elected a new Northern Ireland Assembly to form a parliament. Every party that reaches a specific level of support gains the right to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though his party's new leader, Mark Durkan, subsequently replaced him. The Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly.

The Assembly and its Executive operated on a stop-start basis, with repeated disagreements about whether the IRA was fulfilling its commitments to disarm, a Unionist precondition for sharing power with Sinn Féin that was not included in the Agreement, and also allegations from the PSNI's Special Branch that there was an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service. The north is now, once more, run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, and a British ministerial team answerable to him. Hain is answerable only to the British cabinet.

The changing climate in Northern Ireland was represented by the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Parliament Buildings in Stormont, where she met nationalist ministers from the SDLP as well as unionist ministers, and spoke of the rights of people who perceive themselves as Irish to be treated as equal citizens with those who regard themselves as British. Similarly, on visits to Northern Ireland, the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, met with unionist ministers and with the local Lord Lieutenant of each county, the representative of the Queen.

However, the Assembly elections of 30 November 2003 saw Sinn Féin and the DUP emerge as the largest parties in each ethnic bloc, which was perceived as making a restoration of the devolved institutions more difficult to achieve. However, serious talks between the political parties and the British and Irish governments saw steady, if stuttering, progress throughout 2004, with the DUP in particular surprising many observers with its newly discovered pragmatism. However, an arms-for-government deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP broke down in December 2004 due to a row over whether photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning was necessary.

The 2005 British General Election saw further polarisation, although Sinn Fein did not make the breakthrough expected. The DUP took 9 seats, while Sinn Fein only managed to gain one seat from the SDLP, failing to gain the SDLP leader Mark Durkan's Foyle seat as predicted by many. In the South Belfast constituency, the SDLP gained from the UUP as a result of a split unionist vote. The UUP only took one seat, with the leader David Trimble losing his and subsequently resigning as leader.

See also


Note 1: Royal Ulster Constabularyde:Geschichte Nordirlands


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